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20. Discovering The Serengeti

The famous great migration

The Serengeti is the most famous of all the African national parks and game reserves. But visiting the park is expensive. I have no idea until Eddie presents us with our permit of entry, itemising the amounts. We have already paid our share in our payment for the whole trip, but it is interesting to look at the details. The entrance fees for our group of six people for two days are $720, the cost of taking three vehicles into the park is $240, and the camping fees for 6 people for 2 nights are $360. All in US dollars. That’s a total of $1320. It’s enough to make you catch your breath and determine to value every moment in the park.

The whole Serengeti region includes the national park itself, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. To reach the park, we need to travel through the Ngorongoro area. We leave a cold wet Mto Wa Mtu early in the morning, and climb the road up the escarpment to a viewpoint where we look down on the blue of Lake Manyara and the green of the national park forest. The land slopes gently from the top of the escarpment, green and leafy with subsistence cropping, shrouds of mist covering the hills. We travel through a series of wet muddy villages and towns, each with their rugged speed bumps, and we stop to fuel up. Martin does the refuelling and I have time to observe my surroundings.

Only the main street, lined with small shops, is sealed; I wonder what conditions were like in this weather before the tar sealing; it must have been hard to escape the mud. The local people, shoppers and traders, are dressed for winter with warm jackets and coats. It is the first time I have noticed this in Africa. A tuk tuk struggles up the hill, overloaded with passengers. Several land rovers full of Europeans, probably overseas tourists on their way to Lake Manyara, race through town. They, like us, are in their own little comfortable world, cocooned from the life of the town and its dirty footpaths and maize porridge for dinner. Locals pass by our vehicle, unaware of my observation, intent on their cell phone to their ear. As one woman chats animatedly to her unseen friend, I wonder at how readily she has adapted to some aspects of the modern world.

As we reach Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the rain falls more heavily. We enter thick jungle on both sides of the narrow winding gravel road. Eddie and Jan have already warned us in ‘team talk’ time to proceed with great care as the road is poor and other drivers leave a lot to be desired in their highway manners. As we climb to 2200 metres, it is impossible to see very far ahead, for thick mist blankets everything. But I can just make out a dozen olive baboons clustered in the middle of the road, content to sit there until our vehicle is just about on them. We stop at a viewpoint along the crater rim, the large volcanic caldera within the conservation area, and stare into the soupy fog, not a vestige of the grassland crater below to be seen.

In the mist we pass the cairn to Michael and Bernhard Grzimek. Father Bernhard was a German zoo director and conservationist who did much to highlight the need to conserve the Serengeti. His film and best-selling book, ‘Serengeti shall not die’, became very popular and contributed to the creation of the Serengeti National Park. His son Michael followed him down the conservation track, but died in a plane crash in the Serengeti in 1959 and was buried on the Ngorongoro crater rim. When his father died some 30 years later, his ashes were placed there too. The words to Michael read: ‘He gave all he possessed including his life for the wild animals of Africa’. We remember we are still in Masai country, for we meet several groups of Masai herders and their goats and cows along the road. Land in the conservation area is multi-use and unique as the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while allowing human habitation and subsistence cropping.

The mist and low cloud begin to lift, and by the time we reach the turn-off down into the crater, we can see part of the wide grassland basin and the crater lake. We stop to take a photo but do not descend into the crater, for our destination is the Serengeti. The landscape changes dramatically: from luxuriant green jungle to savannah dotted with acacia trees to dry open grassland, some of it sparse and overgrazed. We pass zebra and wildebeest and in the distance several Masai villages, upright staved fences encircling the humped mud huts and red clad women gathering their cloaks around them as if to fend off the cold. The view opens to a broad sweep of extensive grassland, across which wander lines of grazing brown and black cattle. We pass some on the road, their protruding ribs evidence of insufficient feed.

The weather is now fine and sunny and the dusty road descends towards the Serengeti plains. We see a group of majestic giraffe, then some Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles. Finally we pass under the Naabi Hill Gate into the park and stop for lunch. The grassland becomes longer and more luxurious and we spot more wildlife – gazelles, wildebeest, buffalo, zebra and elephants.

Wikipedia says the Serengeti, established in 1951, is the jewel in the crown of Tanzania's protected areas, covering 14,750 square kilometres of savannah, forest and woodland. Today the park protects the greatest and most varied collection of terrestrial wildlife on earth, and one of the last great migratory systems still intact. It is the migration that makes the Serengeti so famous. Over a million wildebeest and about 200,000 zebras flow south from the northern hills to the southern plains for the short rains every October and November, and then swirl west and north after the long rains in April, May and June. And we are among the more than 90,000 tourists that visit the park each year.

Before reaching our camping ground we take the opportunity at the park centre to peruse the informative material about the wildebeest migration. The centre is sited beside one of the kopje or rock formations, common in the area, where the hyrax or dassies run in and out of the rock crevices. They are small cute mammals a little larger than a guinea pig, but apparently related to the elephant family.

Despite the substantial fees, our campsite, Nyani, consists of three very simple but sizeable concrete block shelters – a kitchen, a toilet and shower block and a dining space where we provide our own tables and seats. In the middle is a rough sparsely grassed area for erecting tents; there are no fences and wild animals are free to wander through. In fact, we don’t see any, though we hear the jackals and hyenas at night.

On our first and second day in the park we have three expeditions to view the game, in the late afternoon, after setting up camp, at 6.45 the next morning until early afternoon, and then later in the day from mid-afternoon until early evening. That gives us plenty of opportunity to see a variety of wildlife. The park is not overflowing with specimens as you might imagine from watching nature documentaries, but there is enough to hold our interest. The best area with the highest concentration of animals is along the river, on both sides of which run gravel roads, allowing easy access to the water.

It is fascinating to watch the numerous groups of elephants, sometimes clustering together in a protective huddle under trees, other times walking in a long line one after the other through the grass. The babies are so appealing and always well looked after by the herd. Among the most common of the antelopes are the Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles, slender and delicate like the South African springbok. The Thompson’s gazelle is a prettier animal with a black stripe along its flank, while the Grant’s gazelle is slightly larger and generally plainer but with its white rump patch coming up higher above its tail; their horns are also more lyre-shaped.

There are warthogs, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, baboons, dik dik, mongoose, hippo and buffalo. Two that I don’t remember seeing well in previous parks are the hyena, five running through the grass one after the other, and the topi, a reddish brown short horned antelope with dark blotches on the face and above the legs and a hump above the shoulders. As in other parks, the lions are a highlight. We see a number of different groups, some with cubs, some with a male lion. We watch as the king prowls around, finds an elevated dirt hillock and settles down to survey his kingdom. The females gather around and relax in his presence.

Later toward evening we witness a little drama. Across the river, I see a herd of buffalo running, all in the same direction, their lives dependent on escape; we stop the vehicle and I realize they are being pursued by three lionesses, fast and determined. As they disappear from sight, I see the male lion following more slowly behind; then he stops and looks across the valley towards us. Written on his face is the question: have they made a kill and will I enjoy a meal shortly? Night is falling and we need to be back at our camp site by 7.00pm, so we decide not to further follow the spectacle; but it is wonderful to be an eyewitness of nature in action.

On our final morning we leave the park via the western corridor, driving 150 kilometres to the Ndabaka Gate. It is there that we see the wildebeest migration in operation. As one golden plain gives way to another wide valley, the landscape is dotted with thousands of wildebeest, all on their way to the Masai Mara in Kenya. Black dots moving slowly against a background of green and brown savannah. They are strange looking creatures, with their humped shoulders, scraggy manes and goatee beards, short curved horns, and darker stripped coloration on their neck and body. We come across a lone confused young wildebeest, obviously separated from its mother; it runs and runs along the road in front of our vehicle until we overtake it; poor thing, it won’t survive long.

Zebra are part of the migration too, with their rounded rumps and clean black and white strips. A long line of zebra cross the road in front of us, following one behind the other like a procession of children organized by their teacher. Sometimes a few are scattered in amongst the wildebeest, sometimes they form large groups by themselves. It is so tempting to take yet another photo for the record. Eventually the numbers of migrating animals thin out and we are soon at the end of the park with half an hour to spare before our required departure time. We are so pleased to have been witness to part of the famous migration.

Posted by rhinospin 18:05 Archived in Tanzania

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